Belarus’s Political Prisoners and the West

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 11

Nobel Laurete Ales Bialiatski being held in detention at the Minsk Lenin District Court (Source: Svaboda).

The Belarusian government’s onslaught on those implicated in the 2020 post-election protests does not show signs of abating. In fact, this effort is radicalizing despite it being more than two years since those protests broke out.

No security-related concerns dictated that Ales Bialiatski, a 2022 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, be handcuffed and held in a cage during the January 5 session at Minsk’s Lenin District court. As Yury Drakakhrust of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty asserts, “Absent handcuffs, he would not have outwitted the guards anyway. But when the international media reproduce the photos of the laureate in handcuffs, it is what the regime counts on. Yes, they say, we are the Mordor, this is how toxic we are” (Svaboda, January 12).

On January 12, Andrei Dmitriev, formerly a co-chair of the “Tell the Truth” social movement, was arrested (Belta, January 12). If any public figure among the Belarusian opposition was more inclined to talk to the Belarusian authorities at all levels and was less dismissive of their activity, it was Dmitriev, whose movement was registered by the authorities in May 2017 and subsequently outlawed in October 2021. Dmitriev was repeatedly accused by his more radical colleagues of selling out to the regime. He had the opportunity to leave Belarus on numerous occasions but chose to stay put. His arrest seems to be a hallmark in the Minsk authorities’ growing intransigence.

In this regard, the tenor and wording of the official announcement on Dmitriev’s arrest are noteworthy. “It was . . . established,” reads the announcement, “that the suspect crossed the state border of Belarus 599 times, 33 of them after 2020. The prosecution believes that Dmitriev’s contacts with representatives of the West and the United States may indicate the coordination of his ‘political’ activities from abroad. Available information shows the detainee was in contact with the United States State Department and personally with its former head Hillary Clinton. At the moment, Dmitriev is suspected of committing a crime under Article 342 (organization and preparation of actions grossly violating public order or active participation in them) of the Criminal Code, and he has been detained” (Belta, January 12).

According to Dmitry Gurnevich of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, accusing anybody who disagrees with the movement of being the KGB’s or Moscow’s agent is habitual for the Belarusian opposition milieu, but similar to likening one’s opponent in a debate to Adolf Hitler, this practice effectively makes the debate pointless. Gurnevich thinks that the opposition-minded politicians fit into one of three patterns: (1) those with a grasp of reality and the attitudes of the people, who keep up with society, not overtaking it, but rather trying to outsmart it; (2) those with a grasp of reality and trying to change it while pushing against the dominant attitude; and (3) those without any grasp of reality whatsoever and therefore doing nothing. Gurnevich is convinced that Dmitriev belongs in the first category, and thus, he was open to initiating a dialogue with anybody, be they supporters of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and Russian President Vladimir Putin, as those supporters are an inalienable part of the Belarusian electorate. In Gurnevich’s opinion, this was also the modus operandi of the currently jailed Victor Babaryko, who seemed to potentially represent the most competitive opponent of Lukashenka when his electoral campaign was terminated upon his arrest in mid-June 2020 (, January 12).

Despite increased repressions, Artyom Shraibman, non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, believes that Lukashenka did not abandon his usual habit of maneuvering between Russia and the West. What has changed is the international environment whereby the West no longer buys Lukashenka’s characterization as an alleged peacemaker potentially instrumental in resolving the armed conflict next door and therefore is not interested in bargaining with him regarding political prisoners. At the same time, Shraibman does not think Putin’s insistence on the Belarusian army entering the war has reached the point of no return for Lukashenka. Otherwise, every month would not bring about new concessions from the Kremlin, including the low prices of Russian oil for Belarus being locked in for three years as well as new loans and the refinancing of old ones (Gazetaby, January 9).

It could be, however, that bargaining for the release of political prisoners may not be subject to permanent rejection. Lukashenka is noticeably upping the ante. Dmitriev’s arrest may, in fact, have been caused by the exhaustion of the pool of obvious targets, which has also been instrumental in turning the authorities’ attention to a few thousand Belarusians who donated funds to protest groups via Facebook in 2022 (Svaboda, January 13). Drakakhrust is justified in admitting that mere requests and direct contact with Lukashenka have been crucial in securing the release of political consultant Vitaly Shklyarov and active post-election protester Natalia Hersche, a dual citizen of Belarus and Switzerland (Svaboda, January 12). In Shklyarov’s case, a request by former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did the trick; in Hersche’s case, the new Swiss ambassador to Belarus, who handed her credentials to Lukashenka in September 2022, made the release happen (, September 30, 2022). In fact, Hersche was released just after the arrival of the new Swiss ambassador in early 2022. In the not-so-distant past, in 2008 and 2015, the release of political prisoners in Belarus followed the European Union’s decision to suspend sanctions on Belarus.

On January 10, a group of 29 people, 25 of which are close relatives of current Belarusian political prisoners, wrote an open appeal to the global community and political leaders to intensify efforts to facilitate the release of these prisoners, including through direct negotiations with Lukashenka (Zerkalo, January 10). This approach is at odds with the tenacious stand of the Vilnius-based provisional cabinet of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, which is adamantly opposed to Western leaders’ direct contact and bargaining with the Lukashenka regime. In this regard, Drakakhrust’s remark that only the regime itself and Western leaders are the stakeholders in this issue whereby the West takes guidance from its own interests, not those of the Belarusian opposition-in-exile, is on target (Svaboda, January 12). Same is true with the suggestion that the opposition leaders should not throw a monkey wrench into Western attempts at negotiating with Minsk over the fate of political prisoners should the West indeed decide to undertake such efforts.